A man and a woman sit together on a ferry, gazing at each other with tangible romantic tension.

Film Review: Past Lives

Film Reviews

Past Lives
Director: Celine Song

Killer Films
In Theaters: 06.16

Past Lives isn’t just the best movie opening this month: It’s likely to be among the best of the year. Still, it may not be the movie you’re looking for in terms of light-hearted fun.

Past Lives introduces us to Na Young and Hae Sung, two South Korean pre-teens who are the best of friends and are going on their first date together. The sweethearts find themselves abruptly separated when Na Young’s parents decide to immigrate to the West, separating her from her lover. As she is slowly Americanized, Na Young becomes Nora, and she begins to forget about Hae Sung over time. 

After college, and Nora (now played by Greta Lee, Russian Doll) randomly starts to think about Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, Leto) and discovers that he’s been looking for her. Because Hae Sung still lives in Seoul, they rekindle their flame through Zoom chats. While the emotional connection is still strong, Nora is focused on her life and ambitions as a playwright in New York. Time moves on, and eventually Nora marries a fellow writer, Arthur (John Magaro, First Cow, Showing Up), and builds a life with him. When Hae Sung and Nora are finally set to meet up in person in New York 24 years after their separation, the two of them—and Arthur—are unsure what to think or feel as this reunion approaches.

Past Lives is a beautiful and haunting story about love and the complexity of human emotion, and Celine Song‘s screenplay and direction are genuinely flawless. The depth of the story and this simple, unpretentious exploration of the connections we form in life, what they mean and why they happen had me on the edge of my seat. There is meticulous beauty in each painstakingly crafted shot, and it never distracts from the engrossing drama. 

Redefining a relationship with a past love has rarely been handled with such a real sense of truth, and Song has approached the subject with honesty. Past Lives is such an emotionally draining experience that it took me a few days to process. The brilliance of the film lies in how equally relatable Nora and Arthur are, and I’ve never been in either of their shoes.

Lee is magnificent as Nora, an ambitious and intelligent woman who feels millions of miles away from the country where she was born and the little girl that she used to be. Lee’s performance is a mesmerizing portrayal of coming to terms with who  we were at different points in our lives, and reconciling the ways in which those aspects of ourselves separate or connect. As a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, Yoo is quite touching, and when they finally come together on screen, it’s some of the most visceral and powerful acting I’ve ever seen. More is communicated through body language and unspoken words between them than pages of dialogue could ever possibly convey. Magaro is mesmerizing as Arthur, and one of the film’s best scenes involves these two men acknowledging that the very thing that creates an awkward tension between them also establishes an undeniable kinship.

Past Lives is not high-spirited moviegoing fare. If you’re looking for a lighthearted time, I’d recommend Elemental, or maybe The Flash if you’re okay with turning your brain off. If you want a film that will stick with you forever and make you think and feel, nothing else even comes close to this instant classic. –Patrick Gibbs  

Read more reviews of heart-wrenching, melancholic films:
Film Review: The Starling Girl
Film Review: Showing Up